Primary Focus: County Mayor

Looking for Boring

It has been hard to remember here recently, but there was a time when the county mayor's office was an oasis of calm in the Knox County political universe. (It was called county executive then, but the job is essentially the same.) About 10 or 12 years ago, the local legislative landscape was defined by seemingly endless, sometimes petty, often entertaining, but generally unproductive feuds. County Commission fought with the school board. The Knoxville Police Department fought with the Knox County Sheriff's Department. Sheriff Tim Hutchison fought with the News Sentinel, and Mayor Victor Ashe fought with whomever happened to be available.

But in the midst of all that, the executive branch of county government thudded along stoically, preparing budgets, offering compromises to the various factions, and just kind of keeping the lights turned on. That was partly a function of the personality at the top, County Executive Tommy Schumpert, a practical-minded former county trustee who liked making numbers add up and disliked drama. But it was also partly a function of the job itself. "County mayor," for all the pomp of the title, is not really a very exciting gig.

As state Sen. Tim Burchett, widely considered the frontrunner to next inhabit the position, says: "It should be a boring job."

Burchett's emphasis on "should" is an acknowledgment of the non-boringness that has accrued to the office over the two terms of Mayor Mike Ragsdale. Through a series of political missteps, unfortunate hires, and ethical tempests, Ragsdale elevated the visibility of the position, but clearly not in the way he had hoped to. He was, of course, not helped by his involvement in the unseemly circus of County Commission and the other county offices in the same era. As the most prominent face of county government at a time when "county government" became dirty words, Ragsdale ended up tarnished, and his office along with it.

That's why the major thing that unites all of the candidates to succeed him is an emphasis on accountability and trust. Republicans Burchett and Hutchison will face off in the primary on May 4, as will Democrats Ezra Maize and Michael McBath. (Early voting began April 14 and ends April 29.) The winners of both primaries will contend with independent candidate Lewis Cosby in the county general election on Aug. 5. But if anyone other than the Republican candidate ends up as the next county mayor, it will be a major upset—the county leans strongly Republican, and Burchett and Hutchison are established names with long political histories, while Cosby, Maize, and McBath are all running their first political campaigns. So, as unfair as it may seem to the other contenders, the Republican primary is generally considered the de facto selection of the next county mayor. This perception is reflected by early voters, who are overwhelmingly choosing to vote in the Republican contest. Through Tuesday, 11,846 ballots had been cast in the Republican primary, and just 968 on the Democratic side.

(Sidebar: The Democrats)

But what does the job really entail? Schumpert, who left office after two terms in 2002, defines it this way: "The major responsibility is as a financial overseer of the county funds." It is, in other words, mostly about bookkeeping.

And a lot of that oversight is of money that the county mayor does not even directly control. In the county's 2009-10 adopted budget of about $648 million, an estimated 61 percent of the funds go to run the school system. That money is under the supervision of the school board. Another 10 percent goes to the Sheriff's Department, 2 percent to the attorney general and courts system, and 10 percent to debt service. That leaves less than 20 percent of the total budget in areas under the direct control of the county mayor: the county Finance Department, Public Works, the Health Department, the library system. And, of course, all budgets are subject to approval by County Commission.

Still, the position is hardly powerless. The mayor has to make sure all of those different, semi-autonomous divisions stay within the county's overall financial constraints. And if he (or she, though not this year) sees a need for new resources, the mayor is the one who has to make a case for raising taxes or fees or whatever new form of revenue he thinks is required.

There is also the matter of the bully pulpit—the mayor might not be able to tell the school board or sheriff what to do or which priorities to set, but he can certainly make strong suggestions. And he's a point person in dealing with surrounding counties, lobbying the state, recruiting employers, and generally representing the county's interests to the world at large. Although Ragsdale's evident ambition to use the position as a launch pad to higher office seems to have fizzled, it does provide visibility and a potentially useful set of political connections.

"Depending on the person, it can lead to higher aspirations, which I don't think is bad at all," says Schumpert (who never evinced any such desires himself). "Because higher aspirations are going to depend on how you function at that level." A county mayor who wants to run for something more powerful—like, say, governor—will have an incentive to be a good county mayor.

Whatever future ambitions either Republican mayoral candidate might have, they're keeping them to themselves. Burchett and Hutchison profess no greater aim than "restoring trust" in local government. Both play up their homegrown bona fides: Hutchison is a West High School graduate who served 33 years in the Sheriff's Department, 16 of them as its leader; Burchett is a West Hills native with an aw-shucks demeanor and 16 years in the Legislature under his belt (four as a state representative and 12 as a state senator). Neither has ever lost an election.

In the build-up last year, the race was billed as something of a marquee matchup: the Battle of the Tims, a showdown between Hutchison's entrenched machine and Burchett's promise of a new face to clean up the old county messes. But as it has shaped up so far, the contest has lacked sizzle. Hutchison has been out of office for three years, and the name recognition he retains is hardly all favorable. Although he is generally credited with modernizing the Sheriff's Department, he is also associated in many people's minds with years of controversy, conflicts, and lawsuits. (Never enamored of the print media, he did not return calls for an interview with Metro Pulse. Though to be fair, three of the paper's opinion columnists had already shown favor to Burchett.)

Hutchison, 57, has attempted over the course of the campaign to paint himself as a responsible executive who managed a large budget and "turn[ed] back in over $15 million to the county of unspent funds," as he said in a debate with Burchett on April 16. But his efforts have been hampered by reminders of his past entanglements. In March, a bank in Athens, Tenn., filed a $4.8 million lawsuit against Hutchison seeking to recover loans it made to a failed car dealership that Hutchison had invested in with partners. (In a countersuit, Hutchison claims he was told by a bank executive that he was not personally liable for the loan, and that his signature was forged on loan documents.) The same morass produced a lawsuit last week against Hutchison and others from auto dealer Dean Stallings.

Also last week, County Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert made a point of calling the News Sentinel to say that Hutchison was deeply involved in the back-room machinations of Jan. 31, 2007, the notorious County Commission meeting that became known as Black Wednesday for its violations of state Sunshine laws. Hutchison also denied those allegations, and said Lambert—a former Hutchison ally—was a Burchett supporter out to torpedo the former sheriff's candidacy.

All of which has helped foster a sense that Hutchison has never quite found his footing in the campaign. That was reinforced by the most recent financial disclosure statements, filed April 9. Burchett's campaign reported having $103,067 on hand, while Hutchison had just $42,891.

Burchett, 45, also has the advantage of being an outsider to county government, in a year when everybody is running as a reformer. His legislative record has had its notorious moments—he will probably never live down his "roadkill bill" of 1999—and a commercial mulch operation he ran in the 1990s generated some environmental controversy (the business was never found to have done anything wrong, but it shut down when it lost a city contract). But he's been in Nashville and clear of the county shenanigans of the past decade.

In an interview at Wright's Cafeteria on Middlebrook Pike last week—a favorite eatery of his since he was a boy, and where he seemed to know everyone in the room, on both sides of the counter—Burchett sounded familiar themes of trust and transparency, along with conservative mantras of limited government. "Government needs to get out of the way and let people do their thing," he says. "And right now the focus has been on politicians and political hacks. In some areas I think it's more or less that they're thugs. And it needs to get away from that."

Burchett insists that he will not raise property taxes, at least not in the middle of a recession. On the other hand, he says, if the county needs more resources in the future, he will find a way to do it. Hutchison was slightly less emphatic on the no-new-taxes front in a debate in early April, noting the precarious state of county finances. He said a tax increase "would never be my plan on the front end," but added, "I think we're going to be at a point here one of these days when we're going to have to pay the piper and start paying that debt back down."

But nobody thinks the Tim-Tim race will come down to policy differences. The real questions are how much the political base Hutchison built as sheriff has eroded in recent years, and how many voters Burchett is able to motivate via his tireless door-knocking and promise of a "new direction."

There is also, of course, the general election still to come. Burchett for one promises that if he wins the primary, he won't take anything for granted in facing the independent Cosby and whomever wins the Democratic contest.

Some observers hope that the general campaign will give an opportunity for more big-picture discussion of the county's future than candidates have provided in the primary, with its tendency to focus on the missteps of the Ragsdale years. County Commissioner Finbarr Saunders, who faces no primary opposition in his own re-election bid, harked back to the 2003 city mayoral race between Bill Haslam and Madeline Rogero. "They had a really good discussion about this community, and both candidates talked about their visions," Saunders says. "I would like to hear from our candidates—Republicans, Democrats, independents, whoever—more of that."

But one of Saunders' Commission colleagues, Tony Norman, says the vision that seems to appeal most at the moment is one of a county government that nobody has to hear too much about. "Mundane," he says. And then he reaches for the same word Burchett used: "Boring. We're looking for boring."